The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Truth, lies and magicians

It’s long been argued that documentaries manipulate reality to tell their own truth, rather than giving the subject at hand equal representation and reporting based purely on the facts. While true in part, it is often forgotten that like any piece of media you engage with, they are just a singular view of the world and always open to new opinion. Then there are documentaries that purposely bend our perception of reality to fool us into believing the unbelievable. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary joins a list of films like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish in playing with the traditional documentary form – although it all seems rather pointless come the end.

Similar to what was happening on the comedy scene in the ’90s, after years of watching corny David Copperfield-style performers, a new wave of edgier magicians injected much needed life back into the craft. Alongside the likes of Penn & Teller and David Blaine came John Szeles, aka The Amazing Johnathan – a comedian-magician who willingly deconstructed his own act. He soon became a regular feature on The David Letterman Show and went on to headline in Las Vegas for 13 years. Then, in 2014, Jonathan announced he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition and only had a year to live. Naturally, he retired, but Szeles’ story was far from over and there were quite a few chapters still left to write.

First-time director Ben Berman met with Szeles in 2017, two years after he was supposed to have died, the magician now living with his wife Anastasia and planning a farewell tour. At 60-years-old he says his heart is still on its last legs after years of drug abuse, even though he can’t put down the meth pipe. His dour personality off-stage certainly doesn’t match the fun persona he was known for while performing, but everything seemed to be in order and Berman went on tour to see what unfolds.

Suddenly we hear Szeles has invited a second camera crew to shoot a documentary at the same time. Except, they are working with two-time Oscar winning producer, Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Waiting for Sugarman). Szeles believes their credentials give them priority and while Berman makes arrangements with the other crew to shoot around their production, he’s more than a little perturbed. Soon there’s a third camera crew followed by a fourth making a documentary (including one who had been involved since 2014) and Berman is left wondering if he should just dump the project entirely.

If that sounds like a lot of smoke and mirrors then you’d be right. The Amazing Johnathan never shows its hand but the simple fact that Berman is able to capture every important event and conversation involved in this maze of twists is revealing enough. Szeles’ entire career was built on tricking people in this way, deconstructing the methods he used to entertain his audience, while still keeping them hanging on his every word.

Berman’s presence in-front of the camera increases as things become more convoluted – and the film is less engaging as a result. We meet his father and step-mum, watch childhood videos and learn of his deceased mother’s battle with cancer. In his attempts to finish the documentary he resorts to ever more desperate measures and even has a sit down with producer Chinn himself – who denies ever commissioning a documentary. With all this trickery it’s hard to know who is telling the truth and Berman even begins to doubt Szeles’ health condition, eventually confronting him on camera.

Going back to how this review begun, Berman’s 90 minute wink at the camera at first seems like a bit of fun, before his ‘struggles’ take precedence over his subject. Through the prism of tying the viewer in knots with the whole ‘is it or isn’t real’ shtick, it presents a chance to further examine Szeles mentality and understand him as a performer and trickster. And it’s one that isn’t taken. Learning more about Berman’s childhood and problems faced completing the documentary just isn’t that interesting and once you see through the illusion, the magic quickly starts to fade.

Of course, everyone involved plays it as straight as a die which leaves events open to interpretation. That will probably remain the case for the foreseeable future and in reality it makes sense to hold onto their secrets. But quite what it tells us as an audience is difficult to tell. By blurring the lines is Berman asking us to question anything we see on our screens? Is it all a joke to create some buzz? Not that there has to be a grand plan behind it, but without some substance, it’s simply a fast-food documentary that quickly loses its taste and hurries out the other end.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary opens in select UK cinemas on November 19.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Nov 16, 2019

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